RIP Spaghetti Western Director Sergio Sollima

When he spoke these words, Italian film director Sergio Sollima, who died this week at age 94, was referring to his love of travel, of the ability to visit far-flung parts of the world, observing and absorbing varied and unfamiliar cultures afforded to him by his career. But he always seemed to translate that love of observation and experience to even his grimiest, most disreputable thrillers, infusing his films with vitality and a distinct political thrust that often separated them from the more routine product of the Italian film and television industry of the ‘60s and ‘70s. 

Sollima was born in Rome in 1921 and as a young man graduated from the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, the Italian national film school established in 1935. He started out writing film criticism but soon moved toward crafting plays and screenplays. The first of them to be produced, “Behind Closed Doors” (1951), on which he was one of four writers, featured Massimo Girotti, Eleanora Rossi Drago and Giuletta Masina in a story of a young woman searching for a missing sister within the world of prostitution in Turin and Genoa. The movie’s suggestive subject matter is fairly tame by modern standards but indicated the sociopolitical nature of Sollima’s directorial work to come.

Sollima wrote several more screenplays over the next 10 years, often in the realm of muscular gladiators and the women who loved them, before embarking on a new chapter in his career. The beginning of Sollima’s days as a director was marked by a contribution to the erotic omnibus comedy “Sex Can Be Difficult” (“L’amore Difficile”) (1962). That inauspicious debut was followed by two features in an espionage series meant to be Italy’s answer to the James Bond phenomenon, “Agent 3S3: Passport to Hell” (1965) and “Agent 3S3: Massacre in the Sun” (1966), directing under the rather more British-sounding alias Simon Sterling, and a brutal espionage effort starring Stewart Granger entitled “Requiem for a Secret Agent” (1966) which he signed with his given Italian name. 

It was the next phase of his work for which Sollima became most well-known and appreciated. Though considered one of the masters of the “spaghetti western” genre, alongside the other two Sergios, Leone and Corbucci, Sollima never enjoyed the sort of stateside popularity, outside of the film buff faithful, that graced the careers of his fellow filmmakers. But those who have studied and relished the history of the Italian variations on the American western hold his 1966 “The Big Gundown,” starring Tomas Milian Leone touchstone Lee Van Cleef, as one of the premier achievements in the genre, one which allowed Sollima to channel his political leanings into more overt storytelling expression. 

In the film, what begins as a familiar sort of chase involving a Mexican bandit and an American sheriff in hot pursuit turns on its head when the pursuer and the pursued unite to take down their bosses in a typically bloody confrontation. Critic Brian Ondorf, in writing about “The Big Gundown”’s recent Blu-ray release, called the movie “a fascinating manhunt tale… that employed a political slant to its tale of unlikely respect, making the feature as much about the changing tide of American and Mexican relations as it was about cowboy violence.”

In his follow-up, “Face to Face” (1967), Sollima again tackled the inversion of political power and violence in telling the story of a history professor (Gian Maria Volonte) who falls in with a violent gang of outlaws and eventually supplants their leader (Tomas Milian). Sollima finished his spaghetti western trilogy in 1968, uniting with Milian once again for “Run, Man, Run,” set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution.

After that film, Sollima left the spaghetti western for good, choosing to focus instead on the rising popularity of Italian crime thrillers known as poliziotteschi. His “Violent City” (1970), starring Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland, was released in the States in 1973 as “The Family” and cannily marketed to exploit the popularity of “The Godfather.” (Once again, as with spies and cowboys, Sollima found himself operating on turf made familiar by other filmmakers, though here the connection with Coppola’s movie is largely restricted to Bronson’s status as a hit man and the vaguely “Godfather”-esque font used on the American poster.) The director would do much better with the brutal urban violence of “Revolver” (aka “Blood in the Streets,” 1973), a tale of kidnappings and reversals which effectively ushered the simmering threat of Oliver Reed, as an Italian official subjected to a nasty ransom plot, to a full boil.

From there Sollima moved to Italian television, directing the hugely popular miniseries “Sandokan,” about the adventures of a young Indian prince in colonial Malaysia in the late 1800’s. The director spent most of the rest of his career writing and directing for the medium and would eventually revisit the story of “Sandokan” in 1998 with “Il figlio di Sandokan,” his final directorial effort. 

Sollima is survived by two children, Samantha and Stefano. His funeral, in commemoration of a life well lived and well directed, is scheduled for Friday at the Casa del Cinema in Rome.

Read: Sergio Sollima on “Revolver” 

Dennis Cozzalio writes the must-read cinephile blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.

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